Nine UK venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have penned a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May with their recommendations to maintain the UK's strong position in the global tech industry, including persistent concerns over access to talent post-Brexit.
As TechCrunch Disrupt draws to a close in London this week, and following research from VCs Atomico and Balderton Capital, the letter outlines 10 key areas they want to see addressed during Brexit negotiations.
The letter reads: "Despite these uncertain times, the British high-growth technology sector needs certainty from the UK government when it comes to a number of issues in order to continue its world-class status."
Signatories of the letter include VCs from Balderton Capital and Accel Partners, as well as founders from Betfair and Lastminute.com.
Access to talent
The leading issue for the sector post-Brexit continues to be access to talent. A recent report by London-based VC firm Balderton Capital showed that 82 percent of founders saw access to talent as the biggest concern post-Brexit. Ability to raise finance came in second at 44 percent.
The letter states: "It is imperative that the government recognises the need to attract and retain the very best talent globally."
Niklas Zennstrom, the billionaire founder of Skype and CEO at venture fund Atomico, isn't worried about the UK's ability to remain a "deep tech centre", saying during TechCrunch Disrupt that this talent will maintain London's position as a tech powerhouse in Europe post-Brexit.
Zennestrom also stressed the need for the UK government to loosen its immigration policies for high skilled workers: “Whatever happens [the government] need to make sure that companies, tech companies, have access to the best talent in the world,” he said.
In terms of actual recommendations the letter states its support for Hillary Clinton’s proposed STEM passport policy to be revived here in the UK.
This would mean the automatic granting of a visa, or permanent residency, to foreign students who earn advanced STEM degrees like PhDs at a range of accredited UK universities, to ensure talented individuals don’t leave simply because they don’t get a job straight out of university.
France has recently set up its own tech visa programme called the French Tech Ticket, as it looks to benefit from the UK's exit from the European Union.
James Wise, a partner at Balderton Capital said during TechCrunch Disrupt yesterday: "For an industry with the cliched motto of move fast and break things, we are going to have to radically change the way that we process visas.
"It takes on average 16 weeks to hire someone through the tier 2 visa process and around three weeks without that, so a three month difference."
The letter makes a range of general recommendations around access to talent, including that "visas of skilled tech workers from strong tech nations (USA, India, Commonwealth, Eastern Europe) need to be preserved post-Brexit".
It also suggests ensuring that "British universities remain an attractive place to study for non-British and British citizens alike", and wants the UK government to "take a zero tolerance policy approach to hate crime, sending a signal to our diverse workforce that all are welcome".
This follows a recent proposal from Home Secretary Amber Rudd to force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employ.
Digital and culture minister Matt Hancock MP, for his part, either didn't have a clear plan for visas, or didn't want to reveal it, stating only that "we’ve got to get this right over the next two and a bit years" if the UK is to win "that global war for talent".
Hancock added that the government has essentially ruled out the Australian points-based immigration system, but reassured that "of course there will be a plan put in place".
Among the rest of the recommendations is a tax rebate for small startups "if their business rates make up more than, for example, 5 percent of their overhead expenses".
The letter also recommends better investment in research and development, asking that government "reform the R&D tax credits to help the share of both private and public R&D expenditure to increase".
It also requests that "the government should campaign for access not just to the Single Market, but also the EU’s Digital Single Market".
Another recommendation is for a concerted PR effort for the tech sector, asking for "a campaign that ‘Tech Britain Is Open’ to complement the Mayor of London’s current efforts with ‘London Is Open'".
The UK is currently the clear European leader when it comes to startup employees, but that could easily change if Brexit has a detrimental effect.
Speaking about Balderton's research into "the Brexit challenge", partner James Wise said: "The UK is still the number one nation that people look to for work in tech roles outside of their home country across Europe and that has not really changed a lot since the Brexit vote." However, just a 20 percent swing would put the UK back on terms with the other major European hubs of Paris and Berlin, according to the research.
On the same panel, French innovation minister Axelle Lemaire said that the UK should be worried about losing its leading position when it comes to research. She said: "Researchers are extremely worried at the moment because when you enter into a research contract it’s for a minimum of five years. If you work on artificial intelligence at the moment you do need European grants and funding."
Paris and France more generally are certainly in a good position at the moment in Europe, but also on the international stage, to attract the most innovative people [...] So, yes, France wants to be one of the most attractive countries in the world for this asset."
Hancock was keen to deflect from this subject though, saying that even with a cumbersome visa system the UK has been able to attract talent from all over the world, not just Europe. He said: "We have been able to be that global magnet for talent... we want to continue to attract the best and brightest. So you can't just see this through a European lens."
Hancock was also bullish on London's ability to attract talent on its own merits: "People come to places that they want to live and the UK culture scene and London in particular as one of the best cities in the world to live your life is an important part of attracting talent." How this will work if tech talent can't get a visa to live and work in London wasn't raised.
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